Commentary On Buddhist Monastic Vocations

By: David Xi-Ken Shi

Our OEB leadership is currently reviewing our Daily Service Liturgy and ritual practices in order to bring it more inline with our two lineages. Xi-Ken Shi’s lineage is both Ch’an and Soto Zen with a dose of neo-pragmatic philosophical thought, and Shi Yao-Xin’s is Ch’an – Pure Land influenced by the esoteric yet grounded in 21st century realities. Our leadership also recognizes the importance of the spiritual element that is to be considered absolutely necessary for monastic vocations structuring a life dedicated to living a more formal Buddhist practice as a contemplative monk that balances monastic responsibilities along side being engaged in our local communities needs as opportunities arise. The richness of OEB is that our monastic community is an international one. Thus, various cultural expectations and differences often drive our social and individual practice structure. How wonderful a monk’s life can be, especially for us Westerners engaged in creatively defining how one can live our vows respecting the traditions of the past but balanced with the realities imposed by modernity.

We believe in the stability that comes from well defined routines and practices allowing us a since of freedom to enter into it and let it take hold of our ordinary daily activity so we can focus more clearly on each moment. Stability of practice gives us a place to rest our distractions so we can ‘get on with it.’ What is interesting is that such a defined routine (Rule) does not offer a cozy vision of what it means to be a Buddhist monk. I have always thought that novices have the right to a little romance in the very beginning of their formation, but they can not stay there, and it is the daily-rule-of-practice that relentlessly breaks that down. This is where the ‘ideal meets the real.’ Our practice routines and rituals are the physical reality. It is the ‘other’ being taken into our lives as the link to objectivity, the physical manifestation of reality. It is the finger pointing to the moon, to recite a Zen phrase. What is the ‘end game’ of our monastic community? What is the ‘end game’ of my practice as a monk? I might suggest that the chief motivation for our shared common monastic life is to live harmoniously together so that we can share this gift with others. Our formation and vocation is a gift. And each monk is a gift to each other in the Order.

This gift of a life lived by vows is a wealth taken by us in order to be shared. Our study life, our ministry, making ourselves accessible to others, our private contemplative practice, and our community practice with each other is a treasure. This treasure is the foundation of everything that we do, if we are to do it with happiness and charity of mind. This is the foundation by which we live this life with continuous generosity. But there is a balance that must be achieved too. The word ‘monk’ comes from the Greek ‘monos’ which typically means alone. Stephen Batchelor in an existential approach to Buddhism, uses the expression ‘alone with others.’ That is the balance we try to achieve as monks. We fortify ourselves in a room alone in order to engage fully with others.

But there is a trap, too, for those of us that do not have the comfort of temple walls to protect us from life entanglements. We can fall into the trap of deciding that our vocational practice is a favor we are doing for other people. A monastic vocation is to be considered a gift to the one that intentionally declares his intentions to live a dedicated practice for the benefit all beings. It is at the moment we stop seeing that, when we see the thanklessness of it, when we feel ignored or abused or overworked, which all may be legitimate feelings at times, that we lose sight of this wonderful gift of vocations. If we can just keep our mind’s-eye on this gift, then we can keep it off ourselves and the need to tell ourselves that we are extraordinary and deserving of special treatment. The life of a monk is not about ourselves. We surrender that when we take our formal vows including stability. Our monastic vocation is for other people. We practice to realize this reality, or being a monk will become yet another form of suffering.

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